By Katherine Brubaker
The Actors’ Gang, founded by Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins nearly 40 years ago, has been hosting summer camps since 2005 and during the school year hosts a variety of free arts education programs in LA County schools.
“We go into classrooms and give free theater arts programming to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a theater arts program. Some of our programs go into history or English classes, and we bring history or literature to life,” explains Stephanie Lee, Operations Manager of The Actors’ Gang Teaching Department, a teaching artist and actor with the company. “They create scenes within that classroom space, and they get to be creative with chairs and tables and really dive into the scene.”
But this summer is the first time that one of The Actors’ Gang’s theater camps will be hosted online.
This new, virtual frontier presents difficulties to a program that heavily relies on group activities, but The Actors’ Gang Education Department is determined to provide the same hands-on, theatrical experience via Zoom.
The camp for children ages seven to 12 runs for two weeks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through Aug. 7. Lee explained some of the activities and techniques taught at the camp.
“We work in four states of emotion: happy, sad, afraid and angry,” she said, elaborating on the Italian theatrical style Commedia dell’Arte, which The Actors’ Gang uses as a teaching tool and has a slew of stock characters or archetypes that actors can play with. “We are inviting these kids to express these emotions through the vessel of the 16th Century Commedia dell’Arte characters and by using these characters as a canvas to create their own characters and monologues.”
The Actors’ Gang utilizes a technique called “The Style,” which was developed by Robbins and former Co-artistic Director Cynthia Ettinger. It draws on influences from the Parisian Théâtre du Soleil, Polish theatrical director Jerzy Grotowski, punk rock, popular culture and Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, which involves moving in the space together. “It’s all about saying ‘yes, and’ to your scene partner, or the actors on stage with you. We never want to deny our fellow actors. It’s very physical and emotional. It depends on sincerity and honesty and truth in order to make that connection with the audience,” explains Lee.
In “The Style,” actors also break the fourth wall and make direct eye contact with the audience. “Then the audience can feel what the character is feeling and communicating,” says Lee.
“Our style of theater also heavily relies on working in an ensemble,” Lee continues, adding, “It is really helpful for these kids to express themselves with a group of their own peers — to share their feelings and truly be witnessed. We also want to give them the chance to learn how to stand up and share their ideas with confidence.”
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the program to be held online, Lee explains that all of the same physical and vocal exercises that are done in person will be done virtually with modifications.
One activity, “Pass the Food Gratitude, will be adjusted slightly to fit the online platform. In this activity, you “pass the focus to other actors, so that the audience can focus on the actor that is speaking,” explains Lee. “So we go around and always have the kids share their names, share one thing that they are grateful for, which could be an object, a person, etc. After that person is done, the next person will acknowledge the person before and say thank you for sharing, and then share their own names and gratitude.”
When doing this virtually, everyone participating will have to be put on speaker view, which allows the speaker’s image on the Zoom call to come up on everyone’s screens. This, along with verbal acknowledgement, helps facilitate the activity.
“This way, everyone can be seen and heard,” says Lee.
Students won’t have access to the theater, costumes, props and makeup, so they will have to get inventive with what they have in their own homes. “They have unlimited amounts of props or clothes, or their parent’s clothes. They can get creative with whatever they have in their own house,” says Lee.
Just like acting, it might take a little imagination.
To learn more, visit theactorsgang.com.